By Jim Slimedog
He comes in fifteen minutes before he’s supposed to do his set. He carries his saxophone swinging behind him. He’s in an old, dark suit, tall and thin, graying sideburns and he’s of the Afro-American persuasion. His eyes look flat and reptilian at the bottom but gleam a little before the top eyelid. He orders a shot and a beer and heads toward the other musicians near the bandstand. He had a bit of a reputation in the fifties but it never did pan out. Still, he can always find work in his city and with hanger-ons, female admirers, few record royalties straying in here and there; he has no trouble getting by. No time to get up in the morning and a guarantee to be buzzed by the night is all he asks of life, and if his saxophone gets him there so much the better.
They take it mellow during the first set, like the owner wants, but by the end he starts to wail. Heineken, cocaine, whisky, and young things shaking their wares toward you are all the inspiration he aches for and coincidently, tonight at ten-fourteen the recipe is right.
“Yeah, I noticed you out there; make a grandfather like me feel all right.”
“Oh, you’re not that old. You’re a legend, ain’t cha?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he says,”I can’t remember back that far.”
“Just like scrapin’ your heart on the skyscrapers, baby, the city’s so high and so is me, babe, such a distance to fall. When my saxophone sparkles off into the light, when the sounds go from my heart to yours. It’s a big city, in more ways than one; its ups and downs, baby, the highs and lows are greater here. But when I feel its right, when I feel it’s all right, Jesus got nothin’ on me.”
He goes out to smoke a cigarette and looks out across the river that divides the city. He’s on the newer, more progressive side, with the hip, jazz joints, selling sophisticated credibility to young yuppies, whites with comfortable, secure futures wanting to deceive themselves that they still got some edge. Jack don’t have to fool himself, he’s had a reservation, a front row seat for as long as he’s known. He’s got it comfortable, now, but it’s a gamble as it’s always been. He always expects the knife to come down and won’t take it hard when it does, as it surely will. Life’s a struggle against death, in its very basic form, and he understands.
“No one comes out on the gamble against Mr. Death,” he’s said,” Rich or poor, happy or sad, good or bad, he holds the winning card.” And he just tries to enjoy the time before.
The cities buildings, full of grime, look so beautiful in the night reflecting on the river, the lights, all green and yellows, shooting streaks across to the other side.
“People, I understand them, you understand, ‘cause people are in life and I understand what…..they’re as fucked up as life and I’m more fucked up then all of them put together, baby. Fucked up as I can be with no side advertisements. No ricochet, baby, just boomer-rang-rang-rang.”
He goes back in and several songs, several shots, several beers, several polite claps, several clinks of glasses, several smoke rings to the ceiling, several severals go on and it’s just a repeat of several days of several nights repeated on. And it’s all right, just no surprise, and he remembers the real gamble, when it was really alive. He looks out at the people that maybe feel it for the first time and it gives him a boost or maybe it’s just the Scotch whisky.
The young, music college student corners him after one of the sets. After many complimentary proclamations he starts in on the technical questions. Many Jack knows and has forgotten and is interested in talking about as maybe, ah, American history and damn, he’s blocking my view of this sweet, young thang.
“You know, I got one piece of advice for you, baby. One thought I hold to be true. That’s that everything that is supposed to be good is bad and everything that’s supposed to be bad is actually good. Being a black man, I guess it’s not hard to come to this conclusion, but look at the politicians, man, probably the most sorry lot to be in charge of a shithouse. And the preachers, the most hypocritical sons of bitches. ‘Course the real people with real feelings I’ve known, the artists, the musicians, the gays, the outcasts, the debris of society, ha, ha, ha, got it happenin’, baby, got it goin’ on. You know what I’m sayin’? There in the house. And these conservative, upright, uptight, hemorrhoids up the butthole, they’re just scared of life to really live it, and they’re pissed about anyone else havin’ any real fun. ‘Course some of the politicians, they have their fun, but they’re like the preachers, they know the game, which side the toast is buttered on.”
It’s right before he heads up to the bandstand, cradling his saxophone, for the last set. He looks out through the smoky haze and sees all the drunken chatter, people shy and hesitant, sober hours ago, just rattlin’ on now. Like his sax just bleatin’ on when a few notes, a few years of his life would say it all. But it’s caught, like himself, in the endless repetition, the endless ritual. And he realizes that however good or poorly he plays will have little effect on the crowd more concerned with what will happen with their date tonight or the woman they’ve been talking with, after he’s stopped playing, or how much they can add to the buzz they’ve been building on. He’s just soundtrack, background for their pickups and highs, that’s why the owner pays him.
And though he’s had more drinks he’s reached a plateau where he’s almost sober or his brain’s become accustomed to the haze. And he sees clearly as the notes come full and ugly, up through his chest, up through his horn and into the darkness and smoke that glides around him where he stands. His heart coming up through his chest. This is his true self, not the clichés, not the practiced notes coming out from him now, during the last set. The people don’t notice, of course, though the other musicians notice something different, and he plays with an intensity he thought he’d forgotten, was someone else’s. And sweat and tears roll down his cheeks and he’s unaware of any crowd or any other people. And his sound doesn’t contain any concise notes anymore. Just sound or screams, more precisely, like a seagull caught in a lawnmower, perhaps. It ain’t poetic, just raw and pure and true and finally, even the people can’t ignore it and a silence settles across the room as the saxophone quietly wails on one pure note.
The people at first interested become uneasy, they start to applaud at one point but the music doesn’t descend and some become transfixed, hypnotized, others annoyed and distracted. And the sound goes on, on into the night, even after the people have left, most unaware of what they’ve witnessed. The note goes on even after the club’s closed. After Jack’s gone home and knows he need not play it again.
Life goes on, drunks are still drinking or sleeping it off, lovers are doing what lovers do best. The players of life are changing in the roles but the play of life, as always, stays the same. And the note goes on as life does. And it gives peace to Jack to know this, as it should to all of us, that the truth will not falter even though we do. And as he lays his head down to rest for the last time, for his very last dream, the note goes on.